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Healing power of community digital storytelling

Trauma, illness and grief create frightening forests of pain, with unfamiliar roads? In such a context, listening to stories suggests myriad pathways out of dark forests.”
Dr. SunWolf

“Folks who join a community workshop have a story to tell. They feel better sharing it. So even in life when real shit is happening, there is an empowering magic that happens through getting to tell a story.”
Lisa g. Nielsen, Our World Language

In one way or another, all of the Community Storytelling practitioners interviewed referenced the healing capacity of storytelling. Evoking a full spectrum of emotions, the storytelling process is often experienced as sacred, therapeutic, cathartic, entertaining, and transformative not only for the teller, but for those privileged enough to listen. Some even suggest that sharing one’s story, and giving others the opportunity to see through their eyes, is an act of solidarity; a shared vision that can evoke reciprocal understanding between the storyteller and their audience.

We make some dark films cause they’ve got trauma, PTSD. But we also make some funny ones, too. Like we did some on the fanny pack, Indian Welding, that’s duct tape, and just silly like corn beef and taters, how to save your relationship. It’s just really funny stuff.
The kids, we did a bingo zombies one ’cause of their parents. I’m like, “what bugs you the most kids?” And so they’re like, “our parents, they become bingo zombies on Bingo Friday night.” And I’m like, “well let’s make a film about it and show them. Right. What they turn into.” So you had these kids, the bingo game starts off and they’re normal. And then as the game goes along, we put makeup on them, and turn them into zombies. Their parents were like, “Oh my God, that’s not us””
Chris Bose

The forms of healing that can happen through the Community Digital Storytelling process are as varied as the lived experiences of the people involved. Whether it’s about healing FROM, healing BY, or healing TOWARDS, the following suggest some of the many ways in which Community Digital Storytelling can and has helped people to heal:

• Healing from personal trauma [reckoning with painful life experiences]
• Healing from stories that have wounded [recognizing and laying to rest the limiting scripts of dominant culture]
• Healing by re-membering parts of our stories that have been torn apart [mending connections and relationships that have been broken – often through different forms of interpersonal or systemic violence]
• Healing by the process of authoring a Community Digital Story [confidence building through making it through the process, and completing a project]
• Healing by belonging, and being/ feeling part of a community
• Healing toward different possibilities [clearing trauma and stories of pain to make way for alternative futures / expansive potential]

Searching for my sister’s eyes. Director, Michelle La Flamme. Created during community digital storytelling workshop at grunt gallery. (2018).

Despite the centrality of the healing power of Community Digital Storytelling, very few of the practitioners have formal training in art therapy. Given the potential for people to be triggered and have painful experiences surfaced through the Community Digital Storytelling process, it’s been suggested that there might be benefit for all to gain some of this training or to work with professional counsellors (if community members agree and when funding bodies recognize a need). Another approach that’s been suggested is having peer-counsellors on site and/or on a retainer during and after a program. 

Working with kids is really good cause it?s a safe environment for them to share their joys, their fears, the darkness – everything.”
Chris Bose

Storytelling is powerful medicine at any age, but it can be particularly potent during adolescence – an often emotionally volatile, and fertile time characterized by intense self-consciousness and an evolving awareness of self. It’s certainly a time of life when the impacts of different relationships and life experiences are coming to light – whether that means reckoning one’s relationships with parents, their culture, class, or sexuality, or coming to terms with a death in the family, the effects of poverty, experiences of violence, or substance abuse.

“What we are doing with the youth is creating a safe place where we are sharing. We are connecting. The kids decide what to keep in privacy and that’s the trust building. It’s not just if this kid is not happy or anything. It doesn’t matter that she or he or they will be creating any product. It’s not the product. It’s the rehab of doing it and you just see how again, age 7 to 70, you see that confidence. We just need a little bit of support really.”
Sebnem Ozpeta

In this way, and at this time of life, Community Digital Storytelling can be a powerful practice that enables youth to make sense of different life experiences, reflect on how they’ve been shaped by those experiences, and creatively activate different ways forward. But creating counter-narratives, and shifting the trajectories of our lives doesn’t come fast or easy. It takes time and heavy emotional lifting to look back and reflect on different aspects of our lives, and resolve to move forward in a different direction.

The story development process is the most tender, frustrating and transformative part of the digital story process. It takes time and a lot of emotional focus to drop into the process, and do the fine sifting work necessary to shed the stories you don’t want, and gradually distill the nugget of the story you DO want to tell.”
Deblekha Guin, AMES

Pride is an inspiring personal story of a young woman’s perseverance in the face of racism and stereotyping. Pride won the Award for Best New Director for Short Films at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1999.
This film was produced in 1998 by youth who attended the Multicultural Views Program on Galiano Island. The program provided the opportunity for marginalized youth to learn the tools to tell their stories and work with community-based mentors in a safe and supportive environment. Created by: Michelle Ryan and Jessica Salo. Mentored by: Pia Massie.

Because a lot of digital storytelling initiatives intentionally work with communities that have collective experiences of trauma and marginalization, this shifting and shedding work is critical. It’s essentially about decolonizing our minds; identifying, exposing and transcending limiting stories (whether perpetuated through our families, schools, the media, or society writ large) about the value of our stories, and what we’re capable of. This clearing work is critical. New stories and possibilities can’t emerge until this happens. Though important not to expect that it will happen, the elasticity and integrating powers of the young brain are such that many of the Community Digital Storytelling practitioners have seen young people move from paralyzing self-consciousness, to growing self-awareness, and self-empowerment over the course of a short program.

“And one of the most powerful ones though, this is back in 2014, and I think it really was the first time I understood the power of media and the impact, especially culturally, it could have in Indigenous communities. One of the girls, 15 years old or so, was pretty shy the first day. And then the next day after she kind of warmed up and saw I wasn’t just some outsider from Ontario, but I was actually another Indigenous person who was honestly trying to have this great experience with them, she opened up.

“Okay, I want to tell the story of my throat singing.”
I?m like, “Oh, that’s fantastic. I didn’t know you were a throat singer.”

And so, her and her sister were throat singers. She started telling the story about how they first started. “Cause in that community there’s a lot of pain from the residential school that’s still permeated throughout the community in particular with the elders. And so the elders have been very hurt and therefore have been hurting other people. So youth don’t go to the elders.

And so this girl was saying on camera that the first time she ever heard throat singing, like her cultural songs, was on YouTube. She had never heard it before in her life. And so she just thought it was beautiful and she showed her sister and they just started practicing and they’d just watch YouTube videos and get up and practice in the morning whenever they were about to go to school or felt bored. They would just practice and practice.

And then they even got invited to go start singing around other parts of Nunavut. But the fact that that cultural practice, that song was not being passed down because of colonial genocide but has been able to gain prominence and to be learned and continued on through media, through YouTube, through other people in Nunavut, sharing what they know.”
Patrick Shannon, InnoNative

Seeing storytellers during the process of overcoming barriers is one of the greatest joys of working with them as a mentor. For many Community Digital Storytelling practitioners, this is the reward, draw, and privilege of doing this work.

“With the Cancer’s Margins project, we worked with LGBT2Q folks who had been diagnosed with breast or gynecological cancer. And their digital stories were both about an internal healing and sharing knowledge about what the experience was like and what they wish they would have known before treatment began. One story really touched me, as I was going through my own grief. My father had just passed away. just being is an incredible story of living with metastatic cancer, an artistic response that other lesbians could identify with. Sharing what she learned about death and how she approaches it.”
Lorna Boschman, Digital Stories Canada

Sharing isn’t ALWAYS Caring: Acknowledging the potential downsides of sharing tales of pain

“There’s a moment in Man From Venus when James says “I have an urge to tell the story, and I don’t know if it’s gonna make me feel better or make me feel worse.” That line so eloquently and concisely sums up the fine line that can exist between storytelling that’s cathartic, and storytelling that may leave people feeling overexposed.”
Deblekha Guin

CDS practitioners are aware that the conditions of creation (the sense of trust and safety that’s developed and tended to over the course of a program) aren’t necessarily reflected in the conditions of consumption. 

The majority of experiences that Community Digital Storytelling practitioners reference are about how people have felt lifted, and propelled, through the process of telling their stories, but it’s important to acknowledge that in some instances people find themselves regretting the stories they’ve told. They may have disclosed deeply personal life experiences (from sexuality and substance abuse to criminal activity) that do not want to share or expressed views and opinions they no longer hold. 

In instances where the stories are particularly intense and personal, it’s worthwhile for mentors to remind participants that sometimes stories need to be told to unblock something, but that those stories don’t necessarily need to be shared. We have to remind funding bodies that a community digital story’s value is not reflected in the number of views or likes it gets on social media (such as FaceBook, Twitter or Instagram). 

“So they’ll go through their painful stories, and then you’ll go back a year or two later and they’re like, “Oh, we want to do a comedy now, or we want to do a drama now.” Right? So there’s that harsh period of time where they’ve got to get it off their chest and then once they do, they’re like this, okay, we’re good now. They want to do something fun because they’ve worked through that pain.”
Chris Bose

In a separate but related vein, Chris Bose shares insights into what happens when communities feel trapped in a loop of “Sad Stories”, or feel compelled (or subtly coerced) into producing “pain porn.”

“I like to try to find a balance between the dark and the light of Indian Country because you can go down a really dark hole, right, because of residential schools and all that stuff. I also work with kids that say to me, “I don’t want to tell sad stories. I want to move forward and talk to my grandma about the fun things that she has in her life,” or “I want to do a horror movie” or something else – it’s important just to follow their lead.” 
Chris Bose

Our third finding is that creating community digital stories can be transformational for the creators, the folks who witness, as well as for the mentors who collaborate with them. Community Digital Storytelling offers us a way to respond to the stories others tell about us, as well as the stories that we share with the world about ourselves.

By Deblekha Guin, Lorna Boschman and Venay Felton

This article was originally published on Digital Stories Canada at on June 18, 2020. Republished here with permission.

AMES is a bi-regional organization. The birthplace of AMES is the unsurrendered territory of the Penelakut people, and other Hul’quim speaking Nations who hold rights and responsibilities in and around the place that’s come to be known as Galiano Island. Most of our collaborators and participants hail from xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) territories, and the majority of outreach activities take place on these territories too. We gratefully acknowledge that we live and work on the unceded, traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) nations. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

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